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Farmers’ debt bondage fuels Cambodian urban development

Saddled with debt from failed harvests due to climate change, tens of thousands of farmers have turned to brick factories, whose owners pay off their debt in exchange for cheap labor

By Sophie Deviller and Suy S.E.  /  AFP, PHNOM PENH

A worker carries bricks inside a brick factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on Dec. 11 last year.

Photo: AFP

Bopha should be in school, but instead toils seven days a week in a searing brick kiln on the outskirts of Phnom Penh — a 14-year-old trapped in debt bondage in a booming industry preying on the poverty of Cambodia’s farmers.

Unpredictable weather linked to climate change is laying waste to Cambodian fields.

Saddled with debt from failed harvests, tens of thousands of farmers are turning to brick factories, whose owners pay off their bills in exchange for labor.

The factories feed a surging construction sector, with high-rises cropping up around the capital, Phnom Penh, and beyond as money — much of it from China — pours in.

However, for the farmers who shape and bake the clay bricks, Cambodia’s newfound urban prosperity has passed them by.

“I’m not going to school, I’m trying to help pay back the US$4,000 that we owe, even if it will take years,” Bopha told reporters, as she loaded clay blocks on to a cart. “For 10,000 bricks transported, we receive US$7.50.”

Cambodian labor law prohibits those aged 12 to 15 from working if the job is hazardous or interferes with their education.

Yet, Bopha works all week with her family.

They were driven into the industry two years ago after drought ruined their rice harvest, leaving them with no way of paying back money they borrowed to plant crops.

A factory owner took over the debt and they went to work in the kilns about an hour’s drive from the capital.

There, a dirt road leading to the sprawling facility is lined with hundreds of kilns resembling small pyramids.

Bopha and her family are likely to be trapped for years as they try to clear their debts, in what campaigners warn amounts to modern-day slavery.

Like most workers interviewed, they asked that their full names not be used for fear of losing their jobs.

The University of London said in a study in October last year that brick factories in Cambodia were creating a “multigenerational workforce of adults and children trapped in debt bondage — one of the most prevalent forms of modern slavery in the world,” it said

The link between climate change and debt bondage is stark, said Naly Pilorge, head of Cambodian human rights non-governmental organization Licadho.

“Many industries around the world employ climate refugees,” she said. “But what is unique in the brick factories in Cambodia is that the vast majority of workers are imprisoned in debt bondage.”

Compensation is not enough to pay off debts quickly and the workers become virtual prisoners of owners who do not let them leave until they pay what they owe — with some living there indefinitely.

Sov will soon be able to take a two-day vacation to return to her village in northern Stung Treng Province, but her husband and children must stay at the factory.

“The boss is afraid we will run away without paying,” she said, standing in a maze of bricks.

She started working at the factory two decades ago with a debt of US$2,500. Now, at 57, she owes double that due to medical treatments and the cost of raising her children.

“I will have to leave this debt to my children,” she said.

Many workers have persistent health problems because of the smoky kilns, where men and women graft without gloves and masks. Complaints about respiratory or skin diseases, headaches and nosebleeds are common.

Dim Phally, 31, works in the village of Thmey with her husband. They have two kids. When they went to borrow money, they were told by the brick factory owner to sign a document and pose for a photograph holding the funds.

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